Ethiopia – a country of festive traditions
21st September 2016
One of our guides reflects on why September is such a magical time to visit northern Ethiopia, and how the traditions around Ethiopia’s festivals enriched his childhood.
Growing up in a country that is so different from the rest of the world is a blessing and a privilege. While most of the world shares the same New Year, we in Ethiopia celebrate it every year on ‘Meskerem 1’ by our calendar (the equivalent to 11th September by the European calendar). This means that ten days ago we just welcomed in the new year of 2009 – since the Julian calendar is also 7 years behind the Gregorian one.
The Ethiopian Orthodox calendar has 13 months, with the last month of the year just five days long (or six days in a leap year). These five days preceding New Year are known for their holiness, and are dedicated to St Raphael. Even the rain that falls in these days is considered as holy water.
The blooming of the yellow daisy (or “Adey Abeba” as we call it in Amharic) is the sign for us that the New Year is upon us: it flowers just once a year, making the landscape rich in colour and lifting our spirits as the rainy season comes to an end. Walking through the countryside you get an organic earthy smell mixed with the flower’s sweet nectar; the buzzing bees, the singing birds and the happy grazing animals make you feel as if you are in the garden of Eden.
I remember that as a small boy New Year always signalled the time for an early morning adventure in the dark. We would walk to the nearest waterfall to be cleansed from any sickness from the past year. All the boys in the village would compete to be first in the waterfall known as “Gutena,” a short ten-minute walk from Lalibela. We always stayed together as a group and – more out of fear than joy – sang as loudly as we could as we made our way through the pitch dark. Looking back now, I can see how many long-lasting friendships grew out of these rituals: it’s certainly true to say that Ethiopian life is a communal one.
Then, two weeks after New Year, came this dramatic religious festival: Meskel or “the finding of the true cross”. In my home town of Lalibela it is celebrated in style. In my childhood we were allowed to party all night and sleep over with friends. This in itself was a real treat.
In good years we might have received a gift at the New Year festival after singing our “Hoya Hoye” songs, and the Meskel party was often the time to kill the goat or the lamb we had received and make a really big feast. For Ethiopians you never have a party without good food, and always lots of it!
If you’re interested in witnessing Meskel in Lalibela in 2017, get in touch.
by Sintayehu Shiferaw